By Amy Reiswig, September 2013

The journey to—and through—teenage alcoholism and racism is the focus of Monique Gray Smith’s new novel.

There is great power in gentleness. It can disrupt expectations and disarm with its humility, genuineness and generosity, and it therefore has the power to build strong bridges across the deepest waters.

Such is the approach in the new book Tilly: A Story of Hope and Resilience (SonoNis, July 2013) by writer, consultant and motivational speaker Monique Gray Smith. A woman of Scottish, Cree and Lakota heritage, Gray Smith offers a fictionalized yet still highly personal version of her own life’s journey. She guides us with grace across the turbulent water of alcohol addiction and the deep underlying currents of racism and Canada’s colonial history to solid ground of understanding.

Tilly is not so much about issues as about people, and it grows out of the vulnerable yet forceful person of Gray Smith herself. Now a mother of two and the founder of Little Drum Consulting, which offers facilitation and consulting to Aboriginal communities and organizations throughout Canada and the world, Gray Smith was a teenage alcoholic. Through her imagined counterpart Tilly, Gray Smith shows us how she got there, how she got out of it and shares the many lessons learned along the way.

The book begins in Kelowna, 1974. One of Tilly’s early memories is of her mother being called “Goddamn squaw” and, as an innocent child, Tilly asks what that means, as well as the seemingly simple but complex question “what does it mean to be Cree?” We see Tilly grow up in what becomes a broken home, moving around for her father’s work until he leaves the family, and we see her mother’s cultural disconnection through having been adopted out. After losing her paternal grandmother, Grandma Tilly, whose “face was covered with wrinkles that seemed to float into their rightful place whenever she smiled” and who taught her young namesake about her side of the family’s Lakota traditions, Tilly flounders in the rough seas of young adulthood without an anchor. And, for reasons that many of us former awkward teens can relate to, she starts drinking in grade seven.

Tilly’s fight for sobriety becomes not just a fight with booze but with herself—fear of admitting the problem, seeking treatment, and reorienting her beliefs about herself. “What if I couldn’t stop drinking? What if AA didn’t work for me? She [her mother] would be disappointed in me again, and that I just couldn’t handle.” She also fights with her cultural disconnect: “I don’t want to feel even more shame for not knowing my culture.” The rehab facility’s “Culture Is Treatment” sign reminded me of UVic professor Chris Lalonde’s recent work on the role of language and culture in dropping aboriginal suicide rates, which emphasizes how important those bridges within the community are, leading people to safety, stability.

Through Tilly, Gray Smith delineates the difficulties facing many mixed-heritage and urban Aboriginal people seeking those bridges: “I was still learning to be comfortable with my heritage. Although it felt right, and I stood taller as I shared my ancestry, I also felt like an imposter—a fake.” And through the many other characters—like Tilly’s kindly Friendship Centre addictions counsellor Bea, and the people Tilly eventually connects with as a community worker—we witness a variety of experiences that Gray Smith explains “are not my story but more the universal story of our people.” 

While she references issues like residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, Indian TB hospitals, the Oka crisis and the ways Canadian legislation broke First Nations’ family roles and structures, Gray Smith does so not angrily but cultivating an emotional resonance that can create bridges of feeling. For example, a man Tilly meets on a ferry explains one of the impacts of residential schools. “In his language, he told me, the word for ‘child’ had many meanings. One of them was ‘the purpose for my living.’ You can imagine what happens to a community when their entire purpose for living is taken away.”

Recent revelations of government-sanctioned nutritional experiments on aboriginal children in the 1940s and ’50s are a wake-up call that we—the collective “we” of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people—still have things to learn about colonialism’s impacts. And though some learning continues to be factual, in terms of what was done, to whom and by whom, some learning must also be emotional and psychological: how do events hit on the hearts of the people who either went through them or live with that legacy? Through her personal and emotional scenes, Gray Smith tells me, she hopes “people will read our history and grow in understanding and empathy” and that people dealing with difficulties will “see themselves and see their own resilience.” 

Tilly acknowledges that each must deal with their own particular past and the cumulative consequences of cultural attitudes and events. And Gray Smith returns the power—both the responsibility and the resiliency—to the individual, and she does so with a loving, supportive belief in the ability of each person to learn to trust and value themselves. “So, two ears, but four chambers in our hearts,” Bea tells Tilly. “That’s because we need to be listening to our own hearts twice as much as we listen to what others have to say.”

But if you’re going to listen to what others have to say, Gray Smith’s is a valuable voice. Those struggling with addiction will feel understood and supported. Those struggling with self-doubt on any issue will feel stronger and hopeful. Those struggling to understand others might just have their eyes and hearts opened. In fact, Smith recounts how a 92-year-old woman said she stayed up all night reading the book. “Think of all the stereotypes of indigenous people she would have been exposed to over her 92 years,” Gray Smith says, excited. “If even one gets challenged….”

“There are a lot of ways to make waves, to make change,” Gray Smith tells me, lit by the sun on her Little Drum office patio, “and I believe that gentleness allows people to reflect differently. Generosity of spirit is one way to change the world.” 

Writer and editor Amy Reiswig believes stories like Tilly should teach us to never write off anyone struggling with addiction. There is always possibility, always potential.